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What a viral photo says about Michael Bennet’s presidential campaign in Iowa, and his chances in New Hampshire

The Colorado Democratic senator spent big in Iowa and came out empty, so Tuesday’s primary is an even bigger test

  • Credibility:

The night of the Iowa caucuses, one photo seemed to capture Michael Bennet’s presidential bid:

Jeff Harris, a 63-year-old substitute teacher, wearing a navy blue Bennet campaign T-shirt and a beanie, slouched in a folding chair, sitting all by himself.

The image from a caucus in Marshalltown, captured by a Washington Post reporter and posted to Twitter, was shared 500-plus times, liked by more than 5,000 people and drew comments from hundreds more. “The face of Iowa,” reporter Jada Yuan tweeted.

The moment proved prophetic. The Colorado senator won only a fraction of the votes at the Iowa caucuses and didn’t qualify for any delegates, according to preliminary results

The Bennet team is not surprised. The campaign ran short on money and essentially decamped from Iowa long ago to focus on Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire. They say problems counting the Iowa vote only reinforced the wisdom of their move. 

“While chaos emerged in Iowa last night, Michael was in New Hampshire holding a town hall and talking to voters,” campaign manager Daniel Barash said in a memo to supporters. “It goes without saying, the events of last night validated our New Hampshire-first approach.”

But the decision still left Harris, loyal to the end, sitting alone.

The story about how he came to sit under a Bennet campaign sign taped to a pole starts months earlier.

Back in September, Bennet came through Iowa on a campaign trip, and Harris said he went to hear him speak. Harris liked what he heard about the senator’s background as a school superintendent and businessman.

Harris owned a retail travel agency for more than 20 years and had worked for a manufacturer and ran a rural public transit system. Now he works as a counselor teaching life skills to children and is a substitute teacher a couple days each week. 

At the time, Bennet focused a good deal on Iowa, a state with rural areas and issues not far afield from the ones he knew in Colorado. His campaign boasted that he spent more time in the early caucus state than any other candidate in September, spent $843,000 to air 1,500 ads and declared that “our path to victory runs right through eastern Iowa.”

MORE: Michael Bennet is running for president. Here’s where he fits into the 2020 Democratic field.

Moreover, Harris, who describes himself as a moderate, liked Bennet’s middle-of-the-road approach and didn’t like how the Democratic National Committee excluded the candidate from the debates because he didn’t hit higher polling or fundraising thresholds.

“So, I was kind of taking a jab at the whole system, too,” Harris said of his support for Bennet. “I think he got the short end of the stick.”

Before he knew it, a Bennet organizer arranged a meeting and asked Harris to serve as the campaign’s Marshall County chairman. “I think after a couple beers he convinced me to be Michael’s county chair,” Harris recalled. “I said, ‘Why not?’”

On caucus Monday, Harris arrived at the Midnight Ballroom in Marshalltown, a town an hour drive northeast of Des Moines, just before doors closed at 7 p.m. He walked toward Bennet’s designated place, marked by a pole with two campaign signs.

“I grabbed a chair and sat down and realized that’s probably going to be it,” he said. When the photo was taken, Harris said he was “sitting there, just thinking, ‘What am I going to do next?’”

“The rest, they say is Twitter history,” he quipped.

Behind him in the photo posted on the social media platform, three guys without signs caucused for Andrew Yang. Not pictured, across the way, Harris’ wife stood with the supporters for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Bennet needed 20 more people at the Marshalltown caucus site to reach 15% support — the viability threshold set by the party. And like each camp, Harris had a chance to woo his neighbors to his side. He stood up and listed all the things he liked about Bennet, his background, his ideas, his relative youth. No one came.

MORE: Michael Bennet has a warning for Democrats. But it’s not clear how many are listening.

On the second count, known as realignment, he moved to Elizabeth Warren’s camp. The Massachusetts senator wasn’t his second choice, but she needed more people to reach viability. That’s where his wife moved after Klobuchar didn’t make it.

Not until he arrived home that night, and found his Twitter password, did he realize how far and wide his photo had traveled online.

Bennet’s team saw it, too. The senator shared the photo on Twitter, with a note of “everlasting gratitude to Jeff Harris.” Bennet later called Harris to personally thank him.

Harris said he was relieved. “That’s kind of a depressing picture,” he said. “If I was the senator, I could take that wrong. … But he seemed very sincere and very appreciative.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet poses for a photo in New Hampshire’s Capitol Building visitor center.(Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Now, in New Hampshire, Bennet needs to convince more people like Harris to vote for him. The state’s size allowed for an intimate style of retail politics that plays to the candidate’s personal approach and his moderate political sensibilities.

Bennet will hold his 50th town hall in the state Saturday. The campaign reports that the crowds at his events are growing, though by most measures they remain smaller than those for the leading contenders in the race.

The big money he spent early in Iowa left him little for New Hampshire, where he spent $61,000 to air 71 ads, according to Kantar/CMAG tracking data through Sunday analyzed by the Wesleyan Media Project. For comparison, Democratic rival Tom Steyer spent $15 million and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spent $3.7 million in the Granite State.

The lack of a clear winner in Iowa meant that no candidate stormed into New Hampshire as the front-runner to take momentum from candidates like Bennet. But the caucus also didn’t winnow the field, which will make it harder for the two-term senator to stand out. He remains at the bottom of the polls.

Bennet has said success in New Hampshire means finishing in the top three or four candidates. And the results will determine whether his long-shot presidential bid continues past Tuesday. 

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